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Compost & the community garden spirit

by Matt Morris
Heart of the Matter
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The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic

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It is incredibly hard to believe that summer is here again. I was fossicking around underneath the leafy walnut this afternoon, looking frantically for some ready to use compost, when I brushed past the blackcurrants and noticed, much to my alarm, that some of them were actually black! (and delicious!)

This was the clearest signal yet that time is racing by, and for a moment it felt as though nothing much has been achieved in the garden since we have been here. But actually, this is far from being the truth. The garden has been continually abundant, the orchard is developing a herbal ley, and a whole lot of development is taking place on the large area of shingle by the back door. Even in the last few days a new raised bed has been installed, curvaceously, by our back patio.

We have had numerous people through for open days, educational courses and community group meetings, and the property is starting to get some recognition within organic circles for being one place where the organic dream for the city may spring from. Numerous plants have been donated, from globe artichokes to jonquil bulbs to old varieties of potatoes, tomatoes and corn, not to mention staples like silverbeet, broccoli, lettuces, ‘composting plants’ like comfrey and anchusa, and a whole lot more besides.

Donations and community involvement
Which brings me back to my curvaceous raised bed, and my fossicking under the blackcurrants for compost to put onto it Because the bed was made almost entirely from donated plants and materials. The plants were mostly courtesy of Project Employment and Environmental Enhancement Programmes, or PEEEPs. This amazing organisation operates on a shoestring, and does an enormous amount of unsung work in Christchurch. They have also run a community garden which, due to roading development, will disappear as of early 2002. Many of the plants intended for their garden have already been distributed around other community garden groups in the city; the remainder are sheltering in our driveway waiting for further dispersal, probably to Kids’ Edible Gardens. A few tomatoes and other goodies ended up on top of the raised bed, very special plants that we will be taking extra care of. Some of the celery plants came via the Botanic Gardens

The compost they were planted into was our premium compost, found not under the blackcurrants, but in one of our compost bins along the western fence. Turning it this afternoon I was amazed to find underneath the partially decayed straw, lawn clippings, weeds and prunings, right down the bottom, a black layer of moist, rich, crumbly humus. The discovery provoked much jubilation. Looking there had been a last resort, actually, which made it all the better.

My first port of call had been an extremely cute Indore pile along the southern fence by the blackcurrants, built by a group of students as part of their Hagley Community College based organic gardening course. Indore is an Indian system based on alternate layers of carbon and nitrogen, with a vent in the middle for ain circulation, and is shaped like a little mound. It had more than halved in size over the few weeks since they built it, but when I stuck the fork in, it was still full of sticks and other incompletely decayed materials. Disappointed, I settled for turning the heap instead.

Collecting the leachate
I did, however, make use of the leachate that had been collected from the heap, a rich brown stew, which smelt utterly abhorrent. I was able to do this because the compost had been built on slightly tilted corrugated iron, which collected into a drain, dug into the ground and sloping into a collection vessel, in this case an ice cream container. An ingenious idea borrowed from Canterbury organic expert Bob Crowder. I also made use of a stinging nettle tea that had been brewed as part of the course. It was actually brewed for use as a foliar spray for aphids, but I felt much more comfortable making use of its nitrogen-rich qualities as a fertiliser.

Besides which, the seaweed tea that the students had also made was nowhere near ready, and I had to apply something, in the absence of blood and bone, to the straw I was using in the bed. This is essential because the micro-organisms that will break down the excessively carbonaceous straw (it was barley straw, not really the ideal material for this sort of thing) will absorb nitrogen directly from our beautiful compost in outrageous quantities, depriving the precious plants of that valuable macronutrient. The compost leachate and nettle tea will hopefully reduce the risk of nitrogen deficiency.

The straw itself came via the Linwood Resource Centre, kindly dropped off to assist us in exactly this kind of operation. It had also been used as a mulch around the garden and as a compost ingredient, but its use in the raised bed was definitely its finest moment.

I should add, too, that between layers the bed had been treated to a few handfuls of bokashi — sawdust fermented with Effective Microorganisms. This had also been donated, direct from the New Zealand Nature Farming Society. Hopefully it will stimulate microbial activity in the bed and help with plant growth.

The finished product was an especially beautiful and soon to be highly productive, curving garden, edged with apricot prunings from the orchard. It cost us absolutely nothing except labour. This is exactly as it should be.

Organic Integrity
That raised bed, and a number of other aspects of what we have been doing on the property of 4 Riccarton Ave, bring attendant issues with them, not dissimilar to those faced by the more formal community gardens around Christchurch: that of organic integrity.

This may sound crazy; we have not used a single spray, nor have we applied any artificial fertiliser, since we moved in one year ago. Certainly the property is a lot more vibrant than it was a year ago, and I think we must certainly take some credit for this. We have improved the place.

But we would not be in a position to gain organic certification. This is because we are bringing plants and ingredients onto the property that we cannot verify as having come from an organic source. Without going into this too much right now, it is worth considering as an issue for the organic movement, because one of the key areas we must be concentrating on is how to get our urban environments to anything like a sustainable footing.

Greater Good
Yet the very nature of community gardens — which depend on what they can be given, and who will volunteer to work in them — often makes it difficult for them to gain a certification, regardless of the cost involved in doing so. On the other hand, most, if not all community gardens in Christchurch grow to a very high standard, they do not apply pesticides and fertilisers, they make excellent compost on site, they encourage beneficial insects and they improve soil structure and fertility. Surely the effort involved in doing so should be recognised in some way, even if not to a strictly organic standard. Food for thought.

In our garden, we will continue to do what we can to make a vibrant organic space within the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Hopefully it will eventually be recognised as such by the City Council, and opened to the public.

The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic